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Literary Smackdown

Helen Humphreys vs. Zsuzsi Gartner: Past or future?

We've teamed up with The Next Chapter to present The Canada Writes Literary Smackdowns, an essay series in which authors sound off on various writing topics. No writers were injured in the making of this series.

Battle Four: What makes for richer writing material: the past or the future? Helen Humphreys triumphs in the "emotional rigour" of writing historical fiction, while Zsuzsi Gartner envisions the future to avoid that "greased monkey" of the present. What do you think — are you on Team Helen or Team Zsuzsi?

You can also hear Helen and Zsuzsi go head to head on The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers.

Helen Humphreys: Past!

William Faulker said, "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past."

To write about the past is to write about the present and the future. We are made from story. We are nothing without our personal histories, and the history of our culture and our country. What has happened never really stops happening, as it's written about, remembered, repeated. I write about the past because I'm interested, not in how much has changed, but how little.

In my latest novel, The Reinvention of Love, the story is based on the real-life love affair between Adele Hugo (wife of Victor Hugo), and the poet/literary critic, Charles Sainte-Beuve. The story takes place in Paris, and when I was there researching the book, I was surprised to find that the hotel where my lovers used to meet in 1836 was not only still a hotel in 2008, but still the same kind of cheap hotel that it had been almost two hundred years ago.

I like the imaginative rigor of writing about the past. Even though emotions can be parsed through my own experience, I have to go outside of myself for everything else. What does it mean to walk down a Paris street in the 1830s? What are the sounds, the smells? What do my characters see? What is happening in the city in that moment? These are all questions that I have to answer before I can let my characters put one foot out of doors. And while I do believe that emotionally there is very little that is different between the 19th century and this one, structurally there is a lot that has changed. All those details of daily life have to be learned and presented in a way that feels natural within the narrative of the story.

That said, I don't believe it is possible to get everything right when describing the past. There are too many points of slippage, even with the closest scrutiny to detail. So, to make up for this I choose one thing to be faithful to in each of the historical books that I write. This feels manageable and I'm confident that I can maintain accuracy on that scale. 

Although, really, my job as a writer who writes about the past is to convince you, the reader, that what I am saying is to be believed, and that my historical story has links and relevance to your present-day life.

Helen Humphreys is an award-winning author of six novels. Her most recent is The Reinvention of Love. Her previous novel, Coventry, was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award, a New York Times Editors' Choice and a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year. The Lost Garden was a Canada Reads selection. Afterimage won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize; Leaving Earthreceived the Toronto Book Award; and The Frozen Thames was a #1 bestseller. 

Zsuzsi Gartner: Future!

First, a contradiction: I've found myself writing about the future these days because I'm interested in the present. As a lapsed journalist (like Catholics, we exist in a perpetually lapsed, rather than "ex" or "former," state) I'm a news-and-current-affairs junkie and a goggled-eyed (and eared) observer of this crazy world we call home. The way we live today — down my street, across town, across the country, and on around this wonderful and wacked-out planet — fascinates, but also perplexes, saddens, and horrifies.

The trouble with the present, that greased monkey, that perpetual-motion machine, is that it just won't stay put. Let's say I'm trying to pin life in East Vancouver, January 30, 2012 — today — to the mat. By tomorrow, I'll already be writing about the past. By the time the story is finished (I'm a slow gestater) and published those darn kids will already be calling fashions and music circa 2012 retro. Dig?

So, if I want to write about today, I cast it in the guise of the day after tomorrow. Or five or ten years down the road. The future will catch up with me sooner or later — it's nipping at my heels with barbed and bloodied teeth, at all of our heels. As William Gibson and other muckers-about in future dystopias have put it: all good writing about the future is really about today. (There are few better primers on Victorian England's social and political mores than H.G. Wells' The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds — books of and about their time.)

I loved futuristic fiction in my teens and 20s — from Wells and Verne to Ursula K. Le Guin and Arthur C. Clarke, to the antic Vonnegut. And who can forget Walter M. Miller Jr's A Canticle for Leibowitz? After a couple of decades lost to "reality," I've been coming back to the future via terrific books I've been reading with my son, including Philip Reeve's remarkable Mortal Engines Quartet, as well as through darkly dystopian satirists such as George Saunders, J.G. Ballard, and Will Self. It's as a social satirist that I feel most at home in the future. What better place from which to cast a gimlet eye on humanity's foibles?

The future is also a far more mutable place than yesterday. A fiction writer asks "what if?" and there's a great deal of fun to be had extrapolating story ideas about whither humanity from the slagheaps of yesteryear or the lost-in-the-funhouse aspects of the contemporary carnival.  

Lately, though, I've become intrigued by another kind of extrapolation: The What If? of alternative histories. What if Leonardo had succeeded a la the Brothers Orville back in 1485? What if there had been no slave trade, no Reformation, or no Manhattan Project? What if, as Stephen King's new novel, 11/22/63, posits, JFK had not been assassinated? And then there's steam punk — a captivating mash-up of alternative histories, anachronistic and futuristic technologies, and Victorian aesthetics. 

All this has me itching to write about tomorrow via a radically alternated yesterday.

Vancouver writer Zsuzsi Gartner is the author of the acclaimed story collection All the Anxious Girls on Earth and editor of Darwin's Bastards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrow. Her fiction has been widely anthologized, including in Best Canadian Stories 2010 and 2011, and broadcast on CBC and NPR. Her latest book, Better Living through Plastic Explosives, was a finalist for the prestigious 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Zsuzsi Gartner photo credit: Cathy Roy

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